[In the first installment of his comprehensive look into the current state of classic game preservation, John Andersen delves into strange tales of what happened to Atari's source code, the surprising rescue of Sonic Spinball, and much more.]
Trash cans, landfills, and incinerators. Erasure, deletion, and obsolescence. These words could describe what has happened to the various building blocks of the video game industry in countries around the world. These building blocks consist of video game source code, the actual computer hardware used to create a particular video game, level layout diagrams, character designs, production documents, marketing material, and more.
These are just some elements of game creation that are gone -- never to be seen again. These elements make up the home console, handheld, PC and arcade games we've played. The only remnant of a particular game may be its name, or its final published version, since the possibility exists that no other physical copy of its creation remains.
The passage of time, and even the inevitable passing of a game development team, diminishes the possibility of further elements being placed in safekeeping. Some of these building blocks are still kept in filing cabinets, closets, storage units, attics, basements, and garages. They may soon face the same landfill fate if they are not rescued.
As a community of video game developers, publishers, and players, we must begin asking ourselves some difficult but inevitable questions. Some believe there is no point in preserving a video game, arguing that games are short-term entertainment, while others disagree with this statement entirely, believing the industry is in a preservation crisis.
Where do the various assets of a single video game go once production and publishing is finished? How are these development materials handled after the game is finally published, and what should inevitably happen to them?
In a sense, video games go to sleep when they are powered off, but are reawakened once again when powered on. The existence of decaying technology, disorganization, and poor storage could in theory put a video game to sleep permanently -- never to be played again.
Troubling admissions have surfaced over the years concerning video game preservation. When questions concerning re-releases of certain game titles are brought up during interviews with developers, for example, these developers would reveal issues of game production material being lost or destroyed. Certain game titles could not see a re-release due to various issues. One story began to circulate of source code being lost altogether for a well-known RPG, preventing its re-release on a new console.
Research for this article began in January of 2009. A questionnaire on the subject of video game preservation was also sent to video game developers and publishers worldwide. The 2009-2010 period of research and questionnaire replies received from the game industry revealed a tragic reality -- a reality with anecdotes that have never been publicly revealed until now.
While many in the industry were enthusiastic to speak about the subject of game preservation, there were others that declined to comment or respond entirely. It was apparent that this was a subject matter that needed to be researched thoroughly, but approached with sensitivity. It is not the intention of this article to put a negative light on those that have neglected video game artifacts. The intention of this article is to also shed light on the state of video game preservation, and the attempts being made to preserve all aspects of video gaming for the future.
Some of the answers received for this article revealed a troubling reality, but the questionnaire allowed some industry professionals to explain how they went into a "rescue mode" of sorts, tracking down boxes of old software and hardware in the most unlikely locations to bring an older game back to a new audience via a console, handheld or online service.
The overall question asked was: how important is it for game developers and publishers to preserve their video games for future audiences?
This question was posed to video game developers and publishers in Europe, Japan, and North America for this article. 61 developers and publishers were contacted, and 14 responded.
Microsoft Game Studios, Nintendo of America, and Sony Computer Entertainment of America were the video game console manufacturers that responded.
The video game developers and publishers that responded were: Capcom, Digital Leisure, Gearbox Software, Intellivision Productions, Irem Software Engineering, Jaleco, Mitchell Corporation, Namco Bandai Games, Sega, Taito, and Throwback Entertainment. Many of these companies also produced coin-op arcade games and some were previously involved in game console manufacturing.
Their complete answers and statements will be presented in their entirety at the end of this article's final installment. A summarization of their comments revealed how they are taking steps to preserve their video gaming legacies, while others told stories of both loss and rescue.
Irem Software Engineering revealed that it has no intact source code from the 1980s, but still maintain ROMs for almost all of their games. Irem expressed concern that the hardware that helps maintain these ROMs will soon break down, fearing the parts and human engineering used to maintain them will soon be obsolete.
Taito revealed that some of the promotional materials associated with its games have been lost. It did reveal that it protects its game media based on internal policies and ISO standards. In certain cases Taito has transferred old console game data to reliable and secure media, while preserving hardware, ROMs and printed circuit boards for its arcade games. Taito considers the release of many of its older games on mobile platforms and console compilations such as "Taito Legends" to be an important form of protection.
Digital Leisure revealed that the original source code for Dragon's Lair and Mad Dog McCree was either lost or could not be accessed due to the media it was stored on. Digital Leisure would end up working with outside personnel and fans to re-create an authentic arcade version of these games for new platform re-releases. Digital Leisure also expressed their frustrations of being unable to acquire the rights to re-release older laserdisc games to new platforms, due to the fact that the original source material for certain laserdisc games no longer exists.
Throwback Entertainment disclosed its "logistical nightmare" of managing the acquisition of 280 different game titles they acquired from an auction of Acclaim Entertainment properties. Throwback's plan is to build a data center utilizing computers, networking systems and external drives acquired through eBay auctions to rescue source code. This source code had accumulated over a 25-year period at the now defunct Acclaim Entertainment offices formerly based in Glen Cove, New York.